I have noticed that there are some very negative perceptions about Special (SEN) School among some parents in the Down’s syndrome community. Inclusion in mainstream is held up as the gold standard; having your child end up in a SEN school is seen as Failure; I have seen parents become bitterly disillusioned when it becomes apparent that their childs needs can really only be met at a Special school, and this saddens me. Other parents can find themselves guilt-tripped out of even considering it by the feeling that they will be somehow selling their child short, or letting them down, if they choose Special school.
I’ve been doing the school run for fifteen years now, and in that time I’ve had two children in mainstream school and one in SEN school, and if there is one thing I have learnt it is that SEN school is not the bottom-of-the-barrel option, it is not about failure, or giving up on children, or just ‘babysitting’ them for the day, and it is not about segregating disabled children away from mainstream. It is about appropriate and accessible education. It is about acknowledging and accepting difference, and the fact that different people need different things. Inclsuion in mainstream is all very well when it works: when the school can meet the child’s needs, and the child can cope in a mainstream environment, but this does not always happen. Of course there are good and not-so-good schools in both sectors, but Mainstream and SEN are, in a sense, two different animals, and one is not less than the other.
I love that Freddie is in a class of ten pupils and three staff (plus one extra to assist a visually-impaired pupil). He gets a much bigger share of attention than he would in a class of thirty. Yes, in mainstream he would have one-to-one, but there is no guarantee that his one-to-one would have any special training or knowledge. With a pupil/staff ratio of roughly 3:1 he does at least have to learn to stand on his own two feet a bit, but in a very safe environment.
I love that all the staff in his school are specialists in SEN, and are aware that our children may need to be learn and be taught in different ways. I love that they seem to be able to be much more flexible and creative in the way they work than mainstream would allow, it means they can be very responsive to individual need and circumstance when neccessary.
I love that I don’t have to fight for anything, and I don’t have to be constantly going into school to sort out problems. The expertise we need is all in place.
I love that all the staff have great experience in dealing with challenging behaviours in a calm and constructive manner. I love that they know how to discipline children with additional needs effectively, and that they have certain expectations of the children, and know how to communicate them in a way the children can understand.
I love that acheivement is measured on an individual level at Freddie’s school; each child is encouraged to improve upon their personal best, and when they do so this is celebrated, no matter what others in the class have done. This is only fair because, as the school recognises, their children come with widely differing needs and abilities. Likewise, I love that Freddie gets certificates for things like ‘giving his seat to a friend’ or ‘being helpful’, or ‘joining in’. I love that they gave him a ‘Kindness Award’. I love that they acknowledge the children’s positive personal qualities. You might think that this is to be expected in a school where all the pupils have some degree of learning difficulty and are not expected to acheive academically, but wouldn’t this be a good thing in all schools? You see, THIS is where I have deep misgivings about mainstream school, not just in regards to inclusion for disabled pupils, but in general.
My older children and their classmates were pressured relentlessly to acheive particular, very specific, results – latterly this pressure was to acheive A* at GCSE and A’ level. No other result was considered an acheivement worthy of note. My elder son was told by his Maths teacher that if he ‘only’ got an A he would be made to resit until he got an A* Maths was not, and never had been, his particular forte, and yet he was being expected to perform at the same level as pupils who’d been mathematical whizz-kids since the day they started school. Because, of course, all typically-developing children have been popped out of the same typical mould and are all exactly alike. Aren’t they?
Believe it or not, there are some young people in mainstream, some typically-developing young people, who do not pass any GCSEs. In a system that only recognises academic acheivement (and then only within a narrow definition) how can such young people have any idea of the personal qualities they possess that might carry them forward in life? In my day they would have at least got a reference from the Headteacher; a letter detailing the positive attributes they had that might make them a good employee. What do they get from the current system, apart from an abiding sense of having failed before they’ve even started? I do think that school ethos is one area where SEN schools like the one Freddie attends are getting it right, and mainstream schools are often falling far short of the mark.There is one complaint I have about Freddie’s school though: while I love that they strive to make learning not just accessible, but also fun, by having ‘themed’ activities, I do wish they would teach their pupils, in advance of being allowed to go to school dressed up as a pirate, that pirates DID wear underclothes. I had the devil’s own job persuading Fredie that he had to put pants on before he could put his dressing-up clothes on. They nearly got a commando pirate!